Born in Heerlen, Martijn Hermans was actually going to be a history teacher. At the high school where he ended up, however, he soon took on a role as an educational innovator. He developed teaching materials and class projects, and experienced the rise of ICT in education in that role.
Computers had to be purchased, and it was the time of video conferencing with schools in other countries. At that school, the Sintermeerten College in Heerlen, he established contact with museums, environmental associations and international communities. He got to work on the first websites, digital learning environments before their time. He even taught for a while, but bounced around projects. “From one adventure to the next,” is how he describes it.
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The digital world grew, his work expanded to projects for the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, numerous international knowledge networks and UNESCO. As these things tend to go, the ICT department got too big and became the responsibility of the education umbrella, then became autonomous in 2010, and before he knew it, Martijn Hermans was the owner/director. Not much later, he partnered with his brothers who worked in the creative industry in the region. And that is the birth of Betawerk in a nutshell. Innovative, creative and socially engaged, it is involved in projects such as Cultural Capital, IBA and Year of the Mines, and the inventors of the app Mijnbreincoach (My Brain Coach) which gives people a playful way to reduce the chances of Alzheimer’s and provide data for research. At its core, it always remained an agency that develops websites.
These days, Betawerk employs 28 people. Four years ago, Hermans decided it was time for clarity, and the core business became online solutions. In other words, building websites and digitalizing processes.
Our ambition is to grow to become a national digital agency, one that offers big quality without the need for a big organizationMartijn Hermans
He saw several competitors becoming enormous companies, but isn’t interested in following in their footsteps. The human touch is what counts at Betawerk, at the office but also in interactions with clients. You don’t necessarily have to have offices in the Zuidas business district of Amsterdam to achieve this.
In fact, Betawerk decided to set up shop at the Brightlands Smart Services Campus in Heerlen. This isn’t all that surprising since the company was already involved in its predecessor, the Smart Services Hub. Hermans is visibly proud of the social involvement. Betawerk has its roots in South Limburg and wants to take on responsibility for developing the region economically. Hermans accepts the word “mission,” but adds that the development of the Smart Services Campus is also a good fit for the company’s ambitions. “Eighty percent of these types of ecosystems fail, so you have to take a close look at who the shareholders are, how the financing is set up, and whether there is continuity. And try to evaluate the opportunities, and what you can learn from all these interesting people who work here. It’s naturally very important for the province to view the campus as an economic incentive program, just like the connection with Maastricht University.”
To what extent has the presence at this campus played a role in Betawerk’s development? “If you need inspiration, knowledge on technology or access to a network; you’ll find it all here at the campus. You will find the major digitalization themes here such as artificial intelligence, cyber security or even where the digital world is headed. You meet people who are working on these areas at the campus, people who are programming, organizing conferences, and you take note of the programs they are joining. It’s really well-organized. Brightlands is part of the AI coalition, AI Europe.”
Artificial intelligence is an important theme at the campus. Can this be a benefit for Hermans? “Definitely. It’s already benefitting us, and this is naturally gaining momentum. For example, we worked on an interesting innovation project with APG on machine learning. This has everything to do with AI and is another method of data adaptation. We started it in a game. This was proof for me that the ecosystem here works. APG’s Groeifabriek (Growth Factory) was still located here at the time. It’s no coincidence that you meet up with people here, nor that the entire creative process has played out here at Brightlands.”
Second digital revolution
Is he completely at ease with the fact that AI and algorithms are becoming so important? “I think we are entering the second chapter of our digital revolution. Until now, as consumers, we always went online to look for information or to purchase products. Just yesterday when we were discussing it with the team, about how you can use AI to write texts, create pictures and paintings, and someone said, “But won’t this field just die then?” I think people’s thoughts weren’t much different during the advent of photography. People are worried that AI will take their jobs. These bots can rely on so much information, and can create a type of intelligence that goes beyond human understanding. It’s an understandable reflex response to innovation. Personally, I’m comfortable with it.”
Hermans is less comfortable with the regulation of new technology, security and privacy. “We of course play a role in this. Legislation forces companies and institutions to ensure that customer data is safe in their hands. We have all of these certifications since customers demand that we offer a gold standard of quality. We are expected to make digital environments hacker-proof.”
As a relatively small company, can you keep up with all these demands? “Yes, because we are keeping pace with the times. We can put programs in place that we can fall back on in the event of a hack. We can also have a copy go live. Sometimes, this is very complicated, such as the situation of a hospital that works with 900 different systems and has 400 websites with applications for patients. These large organizations simply no longer have an overview of their ICT landscape, and also don’t know where all this data is, or which departments are managing their own systems. You need to simplify this landscape, not be afraid to do things in doses, and accept that not every process can be supported by a digital application.” Incidentally, Betawerk won the Dutch Interactive Award with its solution for an online service model for joint communication at Maastricht MUMC+ that doesn’t cost the departments their independence.
This has also proven to be necessary. Betawerk still builds websites but Martijn Hermans knows that websites will soon no longer be silver bullets. “Coming up with and designing a homepage yourself, for example, will no longer an issue at all. We currently often spend weeks with a client developing navigation or setting the site up for visitor statistics. This will no longer be necessary in the future. We already see it happening; when you search for a site, you end up in a different interface. If you use Google to search for an artist, the artist’s site is somewhere around the fifth spot in the search results; they want to keep you on their interface as long as possible. And when you get to a website, your experience will be much more dynamic. You might talk to it. You will decide how you are going to get information and services. Sites will become smarter and hyper-personalized. I find that very interesting. The fact that a bot such as Chat GPT can write a computer program demands a new mindset.”
Betawerk Digital Agency won awards for its online solutions for the Municipality of Maastricht and Maastricht MUMC+. This company belonging to the Hermans brothers is based at Brightlands Smart Services Campus in Heerlen. “The reflex for innovation is understandable.”
Technical breeding ground
As he already mentioned, the moment of truth is arriving at the campus. What needs to happen to ensure this can continue? “This campus’ handicap is that it lacks a technical breeding ground, such as a technical university for example. Yes, we are ten kilometers from the RWTH Aachen. But you have to be able to offer something they don’t have. The only way to make all of this sustainable is acquisition; getting companies to come to the campus, and continuing to invest. There are plenty of technology companies that are interested in setting up a facility here. Maybe just accept that you will remain a small campus? That’s okay too.” Will Betawerk stay? “We remain critical, but we will stay.”